Just recently, I had a discussion over dinner with a few friends. As we are all young college students, the topic of future plan inevitably arose. And that’s when the question was popped to me: “Why the heck aren’t you majoring in languages?”
My retort: I’m not that good with them.
…And I have my other reasons.
Yes, I have a habit of learning functional phrases in languages, but that’s just it. Yes, I can hold terse conversations in 6 or 7 without much effort on my end. But that is exactly my problem. Without much effort. The truth is, for the longest time I haphazardly studied languages. I enjoy messing around with them; identifying and tracing the nuances, meeting new people, being able to read new things. I actually did not find it agreeable that my high school required two years of the same language in order to graduate. It seems utterly unthinkable now, as I have completely turned a 180 and now advocate and actively pursue fluency in my fourth language.
I could tell that they weren’t settling for this as an answer. Their eyes all looked at me inquisitively, as if to ask the same questions I have heard reiterated a hundred times, “So why not a major? You enjoy learning languages so much, why do you neglect them?”
Oh, how frustrating it is! Why is the major an all powerful deal in American education? Why is the lack of formal classroom study considered neglect? I could rant for hours explaining upon such topics, but the hours of the night were dwindling so I wrapped it up and put a nice bow one it. Something, I must say, that I despise to do.
A language major is a piece of paper, just as an other major is in actuality. It is a certificate saying that you ran through all the coursework, no matter how blindly or how well you master the material. That doesn’t mean that you can actually functionally speak the language, much less fluently. What is the use of a piece of paper if you cannot apply the knowledge it is supposed to represent? That there, is my qualm with language majors.
I know too many people, both friends and acquaintances, that have the language major/minor tacked on. They enter the work force and a few years later can no longer hold a conversation in the language or have forgotten many of the rules to writing that differ from the spoken words. That is not what I want. If this means that I have to take some of the dreaded fluency tests in order to truly show that I have maneuverability within the language, then so be it. It is, after all, much cheaper than paying for all the classes to get your major/minor.
But my primary issue applies to the follow up question. Why is self-study considered “neglecting” the language? To be frank (and yes this is a generalization, but in my experience it holds true), the language learning community highly respects self-studiers. Why? Because of the following reasons:
- Self-studiers do it on their own volition. They want to study it. Now, there are also quite a few people who study languages in a classroom setting by their own will, but it is much more likely that there is another driver (an employer, school requirement, etc).
- Self-studiers have to be efficient with their resources and time. Even with the power of the Internet making books and learning material more widely available, there are no strict sets of lesson plans that you must follow. It takes time to identify your learning style and find the suitable resources through which to learn, which leads to my next point.
- Self-studiers have to be self-aware. They must identify their weaknesses within the language and address them before moving forward. They have to know how they learn best, so that they do not have to retrace their steps and repeat; a draw that often narrows the field of self-studiers.
- Self-studiers have to persevere. Anyone involved in languages has to do this. But I can attest, as one who has learned languages through both formats, that self-studiers have a much more daunting task. There is no direct guidance. No one to set benchmarks or progressions on a smaller scale. If reaching for a certificate, there are the fluency tests that seem impossible for starters to reach. Learn a language is not something you just do overnight. It takes time and a ton of patience.
- Self-studiers know their motivators. Money? Grand. Experience? Interesting. Friends? Priceless. Everyone has their unique motivators. In a classroom, the motivators are primarily extrinsic. There are grades, prestige, and certificates that constantly remind you why you are pursuing the language. For self-studiers, the rewards may be less evident and are often intrinsic. A better knowledge of yourself and others, new ideas and perceptions, a new skill set. Granted, there are also extrinsic motivators in most cases, but to keep at a self-studier needs to know his reason for studying else it is easy to lose sight of your end goal.
Sorry for the excessive rambling, but my point was:
No, I will not get a language major. Yes, I will and have had instances of both formal and informal language learning, but for gosh sake don’t devalue one method for the other. It varies from person to person, but personally I don’t need a certificate to validate my choice.